Elections and Campaign Finance
Federal agencies can strengthen efforts to help secure election infrastructure, oversee accessibility of voting for individuals with disabilities, and enforce campaign finance laws.
In the United States, federal laws regulate various aspects of election administration, including voter registration, and protecting the voting rights of individuals with disabilities and certain minority groups. However, states and over 10,000 local election jurisdictions are largely responsible for administering federal elections.
States regulate activities like voting methods, time periods for voting on or before Election Day, and voting equipment. On the other hand, local jurisdictions register eligible voters, design ballots, arrange for polling places, prepare voting equipment, and count ballots.
There are both benefits and challenges to how states and local elections offices administer various processes—as well as a number of opportunities to strengthen federal efforts.
Federal law requires that states provide certain voter registration opportunities, such as when an individual obtains a driver's license. States can also provide additional opportunities, such as online registration. Establishing infrastructure for online registration requires time and money, but can generate savings and enhance accuracy (such as by reducing the need for local election officials to manually process paper registration forms).
Federal law also requires states and local jurisdictions to maintain accurate voter registration lists, and they use different data sources and processes to do so. For example, some state elections offices collaborate with their state’s motor vehicles agencies to get information on address changes. Some participate in interstate exchanges to compare information from participating states’ voter registration lists. States also use national databases—such as the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address database and the Social Security Administration’s public Death Master File—to identify registrants who have moved to another jurisdiction or state or who have died.
While these data sources can help improve list accuracy, they also have limitations. For instance, they may not capture all changes in registrants’ information (such as when people do not notify the U.S. Postal Service when they move).
Much of the voting equipment acquired with federal funds through the Help America Vote Act in 2002 may be reaching the end of its life span. Some states and local election jurisdictions have or are considering replacing their equipment.
Some factors that jurisdictions and states consider include:
- The need for equipment that meets federal, state, and local standards and requirements
- The cost to acquire new equipment and availability of funding
- The ability to maintain equipment and receive timely vendor support
- The overall performance and features of equipment
Current federal guidelines can be used to test and certify voting equipment to verify that it meets baseline functionality, accessibility, and security requirements. Stakeholders, including state election officials and voting system vendors, had varying perspectives on how the guidelines affected the replacement and development of voting equipment. Some indicated that the guidelines are helpful for equipment developers and save states money because they do not have to duplicate federal testing. However, others said that aspects of these guidelines could discourage the development of innovative equipment and limit the choices of voting equipment on the market.
Studies have identified various election administration policies that can affect voter turnout.
For instance, some studies have found that:
- Same-day registration and all vote-by-mail policies increase turnout
- Vote centers (polling places where registrants can vote regardless of assigned precinct) and using text messages to provide information about elections increase turnout
- Using e-mail and robocalls to provide information about elections do not affect turnout
Additionally, a 2014 review compared changes in voter turnout between the 2008 and 2012 general elections among selected states that had introduced more stringent voter identification requirements and those that did not. While all of the states studied had reduced turnout between the elections, states with more stringent voter identification requirements had larger reductions—and those reductions were greater for Black voters than for other racial and ethnic groups.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has helped state and local elections officials secure online voter registration systems, voting machines, and other election infrastructure since 2017.
To guide its support to states and local election jurisdictions for the 2020 elections, CISA was developing strategic and operations plans, but faced challenges in its planning efforts. CISA’s efforts also may not fully address all aspects of its strategic plan or identified challenges from its election security efforts during the 2018 elections (such as concerns about incident response).
Examples of Election Assets Subject to Physical or Cyber Threats
Voters with disabilities
Federal law generally requires all polling places for federal elections to be accessible to all voters, and have a system for casting ballots that is accessible for people with disabilities.
However, an examination of the accessibility of polling places for voters with disabilities during the 2000, 2008, and 2016 general elections points to the need for additional progress to help voters with disabilities enter and move through polling places, access voting systems, and cast a private and independent vote.
Additionally, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) guidance does not specify the extent to which certain federal accessibility requirements are applicable to early in-person voting.
Polling Place with a Make-shift Ramp That Could Impede Voters with Disabilities
The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is responsible for civil enforcement of campaign finance law. It does this by administering the public disclosure system, promulgating regulations, and enforcing laws through audits, investigations, and civil litigation.
DOJ is responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminal violations of campaign finance law. Various types of campaign finance-related activities are subject to federal law and enforcement by both the FEC and DOJ.
While the FEC and DOJ coordinate on campaign finance, some of their coordination activities are not reflected in their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)—which has not been updated since it was signed in 1977. Reviewing and updating coordination practices between the agencies, to include the MOU or other guidance, could help the agencies ensure consistent and effective coordination when enforcing campaign finance law.
GAO-20-267: Published: Feb 6, 2020. Publicly Released: Feb 6, 2020.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has helped state and local election officials secure online voter registration systems, voting machines, and other election infrastructure since 2017. Elections officials we interviewed in 7 of 8 states said they were very satisfied with CISA’s support. Election primaries begin in February. However,...
GAO-20-66R: Published: Feb 3, 2020. Publicly Released: Feb 3, 2020.
Candidates, parties, and PACs spent about $6 billion on federal elections in 2017 and 2018, according to the Federal Election Commission. Among other things, this report provides views from a range of specialists on federal campaign finance issues. For example, specialists noted that campaign finance laws and regulations have not kept up with the internet and do not regulate online political ads...
GAO-19-485: Published: Jun 27, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 2019.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 sought to increase the number of citizens who register to vote in federal elections, protect the integrity of the electoral process, and ensure accurate voter registration lists. Among other things, we looked at the tools state and local election officials use to maintain voter registration lists, which include Postal Service change of address forms and...
GAO-18-294: Published: Apr 11, 2018. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 2018.
Local election jurisdictions primarily used optical scan and direct recording electronic (DRE), also known as touch screen, equipment during the 2016 general election and were generally satisfied with voting equipment performance. Specifically, on the basis of GAO's nationwide generalizable survey of local election jurisdictions, GAO estimated that jurisdictions with 63 percent (from 54 to 72 perc...
GAO-18-4: Published: Oct 3, 2017. Publicly Released: Nov 2, 2017.
GAO examined a nongeneralizable sample of 178 polling places during early in-person voting and on Election Day 2016. At these polling places, GAO examined a number of features outside and inside the voting area. Outside the voting area, GAO was able to examine features at all 178 polling places and found that 60 percent (107) had one or more potential impediments. The most common were steep ramps...
GAO-16-630: Published: Jun 30, 2016. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2016.
According to GAO's literature review and election officials interviewed, the benefits of collecting and sharing voter registration information electronically include improved accuracy and cost savings; while challenges include upfront investments and ongoing maintenance, among other things. For example, establishing infrastructure for online registration requires time and money, but can generate s...
GAO-16-378: Published: Apr 20, 2016. Publicly Released: Apr 20, 2016.
The Department of Defense (DOD), through its Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), has taken steps to identify challenges and needed improvements to its military and overseas absentee voting assistance efforts. However, two long-standing issues—limited awareness of resources for voters and the unpredictable postal delivery of absentee ballots—continue to pose challenges. DOD-commissioned s...
GAO-14-850: Published: Sep 30, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2014.
On the basis of GAO's nationwide generalizable survey of local election jurisdictions, GAO estimates that 78 percent (from 74 to 83 percent) of jurisdictions did not collect data that would allow them to calculate wait times, primarily because wait times have not been an issue, and most jurisdictions did not have long wait times on Election Day 2012. Specifically, GAO estimates that 78 percent (fr...
GAO-14-634: Published: Sep 19, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 8, 2014.
The studies GAO reviewed on voter ownership of certain forms of identification (ID) documents show that most registered voters in the states that were the focus of these studies possessed the selected forms of state-issued ID, and the direct costs of required ID vary by state. GAO identified 10 studies of driver's license and state ID ownership, which showed that estimated ownership rates among al...
GAO-13-90R: Oct 4, 2012
States have a variety of identification requirements for voters when they register to vote, vote at the polls on Election Day, and seek to cast an absentee ballot by mail that will be in effect for the November 2012 election. Voter identification requirements vary in flexibility, in the number and type of acceptable documents allowed, and in the alternatives available for verifying identity if a v...
GAO-12-69: Published: Jan 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Jan 12, 2012.
For the 2010 general election, 35 states and the District provided voters at least one alternative to casting their ballot on Election Day through in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, or voting by mail. Specifically, 33 states and the District provided in-person early voting, 29 states and the District provided no-excuse absentee voting, and 2 states provided voting by mail to all or...